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Monday, January 30, 2012
Exclusive Interview: Roger McGuinn says David Crosby can reunite The Byrds without him
By Ray Shasho
Orlando, Florida resident Roger McGuinn will be making a rare concert appearance on Saturday, March 17th at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater. Roger (a.k.a. Jim McGuinn) began his music career as a folk artist, touring with the Limeliters, Chad Mitchell Trio, and legendary crooner Bobby Darin as a guitarist and banjo player.
After listening to The Beatles, McGuinn altered his folk styles to include a rock and roll beat while performing at coffee houses in Greenwich Village, New York. His efforts to merge traditional folk music with rock and roll were not well received, so Roger moved to Los Angeles and began work at the infamous Troubadour. It was after Roger’s opening set for country music legend Hoyt Axton that he and Gene Clark first met. Soon after, David Crosby joined them completing one of the most influential bands of the 60’s.
The Byrds would soon become Roger McGuinn (lead guitars and vocals), Gene Clark (tambourine, vocals), David Crosby (rhythm guitars and vocals), Chris Hillman (bass guitar and vocals) and Michael Clarke (drums). Columbia Records signed The Byrds in 1965 and they recorded their first number one hit, a Bob Dylan penned song, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The Byrds continued to score big commercially with their 1965 classic that was adapted from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” was another huge hit for the group in 1965 featuring McGuinn’s trademark jangling 12-string Rickenbacker. “Eight Miles High” was The Byrds 1966 Top 20 Psychedelic classic and “Mr. Spaceman” reached #36 on Billboard’s Top 100, both were featured on their Fifth Dimension album.” Dylan’s penned, “My Back Pages” released in 1967 #30 and “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” also released in 1967 was a #29 Billboard Top 100 hit.
Gene Clark left the band in 1966. David Crosby and Michael Clarke departed in late 1967. In 1968, Gram Parsons was hired and The Byrds recorded their critically acclaimed release, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” Later in 1968, Hillman and Parsons left.
In 1969, The Byrds recorded, “Ballad of Easy Rider” for a film starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. McGuinn also co-wrote, “Chestnut Mare” with Jacques Levy in 1969, a song intended to be featured in a musical inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. McGuinn led several Byrds lineups until 1973 when the original quintet reunited and then disbanded after the release of their 12th and final album Byrds.
Roger McGuinn rejoined Gene Clark and Chris Hillman in 1978 and recorded three successful albums for Capitol Records.
In 1981, McGuinn returned to his folk roots and began to tour acoustically as a solo artist.
McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman performed as The Byrds in 1989 and 1990 and recorded four new songs for their box set released in 1991.
The Byrds were also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
In 1995, Roger McGuinn began recording and uploading a series of traditional folk songs to his website. It’s an ongoing project to create awareness of folk music. The songs are available for free download at Folk Den- http://folkden.com on Roger McGuinn’s official website.
Roger McGuinn’s CD, Treasures From The Folk Den, featured his favorite songs from The Folk Den and included guest artist duets with Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Odetta, Jean Ritchie, Josh White Jr. and Frank & Mary Hamilton. It was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2002 for “Best Traditional Folk Album.”
Roger McGuinn Live from Spain recorded in 2004 is an awesome live recording featuring all of Roger’s classics. The Folk Den Project was released in 2006, a four CD 100 song box set of rock, electrified blues and folk, rich in Rickenbacker “Jingle Jangle.”
Roger McGuinn’s latest release is an incredible 23- song collection devoted to the sea called, CCD.
Last week I had the rare opportunity to chat with /The Byrds founder and leader/singer/songwriter/guitar virtuoso/ folk-rock pioneer/ folk artist extraordinaire/Roger McGuinn.
Ray Shasho: Good morning Roger, thank you for being on the call today. How long have you lived in the Orlando area?
Roger McGuinn: “We’ve been here for over twenty years and just love it.”
Ray Shasho: Are you a Disney enthusiast?
Roger McGuinn: “When we first moved here I was. We had annual passes and kind of treated it like a country club, and then I got so busy and didn’t use the passes anymore so we quit doing that. I really haven’t been there in a long time now. But we have friends that work there. When we first moved to this location I was a scanner radio buff. I use to want to listen to the backstage chatter at Disney. So I drew a five mile circle around Epcot center and said I wanted to live in this area. Fortunately we found a nice house in the area. I use to listen to them on the radio but they’ve been switched over to Nextel now. They’re all digital and you can’t get them anymore.”
Ray Shasho: The Tampa Bay area is excited that you’ll be performing on March 17th at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater.
Roger McGuinn: “Me too, it’s going to be a lot of fun, I love the old theaters. I’m so glad they’re still going and people are fixing them up and keeping them alive.”
Ray Shasho: I peeked around the internet looking for some of your most recent setlists. I really admired the setlist from your concert in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Is the Clearwater concert going to be similar to that show?
Roger McGuinn: “We changed that setlist because of the language barrier; I do everything in English so I had to keep it kind of simple. I’m not sure what we’re going to do, we usually figure out the set the day of the concert at around two o’clock. We have lunch and check out what we’ve done in the area, and probably what they are going to like in the area. So it’s similar in that I tell stories, usually autobiographical stories and tie all the songs together with the stories.”
Ray Shasho: What I saw will certainly captivate the audience, plenty of great Roger McGuinn/Byrds classics and a nice long setlist.
Roger McGuinn: “I do a long show now because I decided it would be more fun to do, “An evening with” rather than to have an opening act. So I’m doing two separate sets. I remember back in the 80’s, Donovan came over to the house and he was telling us that he didn’t do two shows anymore and I said, “How do you get away with that?” And he said, “Well, I just tell them that I won’t and they pay me the same amount.” So I said, “Wow, I’m going to try that.” So I did and it was working for awhile, but people wanted a longer show. My set is pretty intense; I do a lot of work up there.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve watched you and you really do work hard on stage. Just watching you play, “Eight Miles High” acoustically was intense. That’s got to be difficult to do.
Roger McGuinn: “You get use to it after awhile. It was interesting when I came up with that arrangement of it because I didn’t have the band, so I had to put in some more licks to have it sort of fill out. You’re not going to get exactly the same sound as the Rickenbacker electric but I kind of fill it out with Segovia and some classical Spanish licks.”
Ray Shasho: Your son Patrick is a filmmaker, how’s he doing?
Roger McGuinn: “Patrick has made films, he was about to make one up in the Catskills when hurricane Irene came in and wiped out the whole area. It flooded the place where he was going to shoot, so he didn’t do it. So he’s still into that and he was working for Technicolor as an administrator for awhile.”
Ray Shasho: Being from the Tampa Bay area I really love songs about the sea. Your latest album called, CCD has 23 songs about the sea. Talk a little bit about that album.
Roger McGuinn: “I’ve been doing sea songs on my Folk Den for the last sixteen years, and if I had to pick a segment of traditional music that I liked the best it would be the old songs of the sea. I just love the kind of bravado and camaraderie and they were just amazing guys out there, it was like a frontier, they were like spacemen. I decided to do a compilation from some of my favorites from The Folk Den and put it out. We were going to call it, 23 Songs of the Sea but then kind of abbreviated it down to CCD.”
Ray Shasho: I remember another great sea song from the Cardiff Rose album called, “Jolly Roger” and that was a really cool tune.
Roger McGuinn: “Well thank you, Jacques Levy and I wrote that back in the 70’s, to try and get the feel for The Rolling Thunder Review.”
Ray Shasho: You once commented in an interview about The Byrds, “We were a ship of pirates; it was every man for himself.” You must have a genuine love for the sea.
Roger McGuinn: “I’ve been sailing a lot, we just did 14 days on the Queen Mary 2 last week and had a ball. I love being on the sea and the rolling of the ship, and for me it’s not really happening until we get a little wave action going, I love that feeling. We’ve traveled so much that we don’t have any motion sickness problems.”
Ray Shasho: The Folk Den was created by you to raise awareness of folk music. Was that the primary reasoning behind it?
Roger McGuinn: “Yea, that’s the idea. Back in 1995, I noticed I wasn’t hearing as many traditional songs as I had in the past because the trend was for singer/songwriters to write their own material. So, I started to put them up on the internet for free download with the chords, the lyrics, and a little story about the song. The University of North Carolina picked it up and they’ve been using it for a public service for all these years, so it’s really kind of a labor of love.”
Ray Shasho: We use to sing the old traditional folk songs in grade school; it was part of growing up.
Roger McGuinn: “Then Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan came along and started writing their own and it stopped being cool to do the traditional songs, it became cooler to do your own. That was the problem, everyone started to do their own.”
Ray Shasho: I remember growing up watching Burl Ives and then later the Smothers Brothers, who I thought sort of reintroduced folk music on television.
Roger McGuinn: “I remember listening to Burl Ives when I was a kid too. The Smothers Brothers always put satire into it; they were a really great act. I remember first seeing them in the early 60’s, probably around 1961 at The Purple Onion in San Francisco and they were just hilarious. They still do the same things that they did back then. I know Tommy pretty well; I use to hang out with him in LA, but didn’t get to know Dicky real well.”
Ray Shasho: We’re missing so much of the traditional music that we grew up with, especially the storytellers.
Roger McGuinn: “I do that!”
Ray Shasho: Yes you do, you’re the last of the Mohicans.
Roger McGuinn: “Well, I picked it up from Pete Seeger back in the 50’s; I use to love what he did in his concerts. So it was an inspiration for me when I watched Pete work.”
Ray Shasho: Pete Seeger is truly amazing; he’s a walking museum of history.
Roger McGuinn: “Absolutely, he’s 92 years old. I’ve had the privilege of working with him several times. I played at his birthday party at Madison Square Garden two years ago. I played, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and a couple of guys form Band of Horses backed me up.”
Ray Shasho: Who are some of your favorite artists in the folk world?
Roger McGuinn: “I love Pete and loved Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Odetta and Lead Belly. The Weavers were great when they were with Pete but he went solo after that. Then there was the college generation and… The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Gibson. One of my favorite albums is Bob Gibson and Bob Camp, At the Gate of Horn. It was a really dynamic album almost like The Beatles, and way before its time … around 1960 or so.”
Ray Shasho: Dance, hip hop, and variations of country music seem to be the nucleus of today’s music scene. Where did rock and roll disappear to?
Roger McGuinn: “Rock and roll peaked a long time ago, maybe 15 years ago. It subjugated to where Jazz was, it’s a subgenre now.”
Ray Shasho: Do you think rock music can make a comeback?”
Roger McGuinn: “No, I think it will always be there like jazz is, but it’s not going to come back into full blown popularity like it was in the 60’s. You can’t reheat a soufflé to quote Paul McCartney. It was just something that happened and it will never be the same. We’ll always have the music but you’re not going to get that popularity again. There were so many elements involved; the majority of the people were under 30 at the time, there was a Viet Nam war going on, and a lot of social pressure to change things, and there was no internet so people only communicated via songs on the radio and that sort of thing. And most of the elements have disappeared.”
Ray Shasho: Would you say record companies basically killed themselves when music started being distributed around the internet?
Roger McGuinn: “They didn’t get it. They laughed at it at first and then tried to sue everybody. Then they went out of business, a really ludicrous scene. I remember this guy from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Cory Doctorow was talking about, if they’d only grasp the idea that they could have sold these MP3’s at reasonable pricing, it could have dragged them kicking and screaming to the money tree. But they missed it; the only guy that got it was Steve Jobs. He got it and iTunes is the biggest music publisher in the world.”
Ray Shasho: Do you think they’re making as much money today on iTunes as record companies did selling records or CD’s?
Roger McGuinn: “It’s not as topped out, it’s sort of sideways distributed where the artists are getting more. Before, like when Sony bought the AT&T building and they had private jets, they got all the money and the artists got a little bit of the money, that’s not the way it is anymore, the artist can get more of the money from their music now, so it’s a good thing for the artists.”
Ray Shasho: I talked with a lot of artists who had multiple hits in the 60’s, and they all confirmed that they were under constant pressures by record companies, demanding artists to record their next hit single or album.
Roger McGuinn: “Absolutely, there was a lot of pressure; we had to do two albums a year for Columbia and there was also threat of being suspended, if you were suspended that meant you couldn’t record for them or couldn’t record for anybody else, you were still under contract. So they could basically shut you down. It was a horrible thing for artists. I’m not sure it was that financially rewarding, some of the old contracts were pretty low for the artists.”
Ray Shasho: The Beatles were huge Byrds fans?
Roger McGuinn: “They proclaimed The Byrds to be their favorite band when they came over to America and that was really a blast. They were our favorite band and inspired us into the music that we were doing.”
Ray Shasho: You and George Harrison were good friends?
Roger McGuinn: “I knew George and John; I hung out with Paul just a little bit. George and I were more friends than anybody.I’d see George over Tom Petty’s house in the later years, 80’s and 90’s.”
Ray Shasho: The Traveling Wilburys were a great band.
Tom Petty is back on tour, any chance of you and Tom singing, “King of the Hill” together at his Orlando show?
Roger McGuinn: “Yea, that would be fun, I have done that in the past, but I’ll be out of town unfortunately. Whenever it’s handy we do it, but we’re always pretty busy. I love sitting in with Bob Dylan too. I’ve done that quite a few times when I’ve been in town at the same time, and they’ve invited me up on stage and it’s always a thrill to play with these guys.”
Ray Shasho: What is the origin of playing a 7-string guitar?
Roger McGuinn: “I came up with it because I wanted to get the best of a 12-string on a 6-string. So, I doubled up on the octave on the G-string, otherwise it’s still a 6-string, and then I can play lead notes up and down the G-string. It’s a trick I learned from George Harrison. You don’t need a 12-string for everything you do so the best part of a 12-string is a G-string pair for doing leads. I really love the 7-string; I play it quite a bit.”
Ray Shasho: It was almost unheard of for a rock and roll musician to talk about their faith at one time. But now, I find more rock stars turning to God as they get older.
Roger McGuinn: “I’ve always been looking for God back in the 60’s, that’s why I changed my name from Jim to Roger. But I was raised a Roman Catholic and had to go to the eight o’clock Mass every morning and have communion and wear a tie, kind of like a restricted life style. Then in the 60’s we got wild and let it go and started looking in other places to see where God really was, and I came back to the Christian thing.”
Ray Shasho: The artists that have embraced God seem to have a wonderful outlook on life, and are in great physical condition because they take really good care of themselves, and look like they’ll live to 100 years old.
Roger McGuinn: “My mother is 101, she smoked until 70, and she drank pretty heavily until she was in her 80’s. So I think just good genes on that side of the family.” (Laughing)
Ray Shasho: What do remember the most about the 60’s?
Roger McGuinn: “I remember the good times and hanging out at Laurel Canyon with my friends like John Phillips, Michelle and Crosby. We’d go to each other’s houses, play guitars, sing, and make up songs. So I just have positive memories of it, yea there were bad things going on but I wasn’t really focusing on them. I remember one night though trying to get down to the strip and there were flares across all the access roads to Sunset. I didn’t know it but there was a riot going on. I just went back to my house in the Canyon and found out the next day.”
“We campaigned for Bobby Kennedy at a venue in downtown LA, some sports arena, and I think it was right before he got shot; The Byrds did a show for him … a set. I met him and told him that I wished him the best and everything. That was pretty bad because I was a big fan of JFK.”
Ray Shasho: Before The Byrds, you worked with Bobby Darin. I remember the critics saying at the time that he was going to be the next Frank Sinatra.
Roger McGuinn: “I was with Bobby when he was doing that Frank Sinatra style.Then he got interested in folk music and that’s when he hired me to back him up on the 12-string guitar and sing harmony. And he was a good teacher. He was a mentor and taught me a lot about the business, taught me how to write songs. It was a great time.”
Ray Shasho: Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Ritchie Furay announced in 2011 that they were going to do a reunion tour. They’ve done some dates already but have yet to tour on a full scale level. David Crosby mentioned that he would have liked to see a double billing including a Byrds reunion but thought that you probably wouldn’t do it.
Roger McGuinn: “That’s true; I’m just too busy and happy doing what I’m doing. I’ll go back to the reheat of the soufflé quote from Paul McCartney; they asked him to get The Beatles back together when John and George were still around and he said it was like trying to reheat a soufflé, it wouldn’t be the same. I’m just having a ball now. To me being in the big time is not that big of a deal. I’ve been there, I know what it is, it’s exciting, but it’s also a lot of work and pressure. I love sort of flying under the radar where we can play theaters and sell CD’s on the internet and it’s really kind of a cool time.”
Ray Shasho: Do you still chat with David Crosby?
Roger McGuinn: “I wish him happy birthday every August 14th and he thanks me. But he does want to get The Byrds back together and he’s even been quoted saying that he’s offered me a million dollars to do it and I turned him down. Melissa asked me, “Did he really offer you a million dollars?” I said, “No.”” (Laughing)
Ray Shasho: Hopefully he won’t try to reunite The Byrds without you because that happens a lot nowadays.
Roger McGuinn: “There’s this guy Andrew Gold, he had all my Rickenbacker and vocal parts down for The Byrds, but he passed away last year. I said, why don’t you just get Andrew Gold man, he can do all my parts, he’d be great.”
Ray Shasho: Would you be upset if David Crosby reunited The Byrds without you?
Roger McGuinn: “I suggested it to him. He wants to do The Byrds … I said, “Okay man, take it out and do it, I don’t care.”
Ray Shasho: I always ask everyone that I interview if they have a good/funny story about when they were on the road.
Roger McGuinn: “Around 1965, we were touring in a motor home in Rome, Georgia and for some reason a doctor driving a Cadillac took offense at us. He drove his car into the front of our motor home and we all kind of stopped and the cops came. The guy that showed up was officer Pope and we were in Rome, Georgia. The doctor said, “These guys ran into me!” Officer Pope takes a look at the car and the motor home and said, “Looks like you ran into them doctor.” And he just let us all go. Back then, anybody with long hair in the south was considered suspicious.”
“When we played the Grand Ole Opry we got a real cool reception there. It wasn’t friendly, we got booed. It was like we were invading hippies and they didn’t like it. I bumped into Marty Stuart about ten years ago; he was the master of ceremonies at this IMAX movie that Dolly Parton was in. Marty and I sat down and he pulled out this B-Bender guitar and starts playing all of Clarence White’s licks. I went, “Wow, I haven’t heard those for thirty years …this is great!” So Marty and I started playing together and kept in touch and he invited me back to The Opry about a year ago. So forty three years after they sort of kicked us out of The Grand Ole Opry, I got to play it again with Marty.”
Ray Shasho: Roger, thank you for spending time with me today, but especially for all the great music that you gave to all of us through the years. We look forward to your show at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on March 17th.
Roger McGuinn: “Thanks Ray, we’ll see you in Clearwater.”
A very special thank you goes out to Camilla McGuinn for arranging this interview.
Roger McGuinn official website www.ibiblio.org/jimmy/mcguinn
Roger McGuinn Folk Den http://folkden.com
Order… CCD -23 songs of the sea (Roger McGuinn’s latest release) at www.ibiblio.org/jimmy/mcguinn, Cdbaby.com or amazon.com.
Roger McGuinn performs live at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on Saturday, March 17th at 7:30p.m.
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I found Check the Gs to be pure entertainment, fantastic fun and a catalyst to igniting so many memories of my own life, as I too am within a few years of Ray. So to all, I say if you have a bit of grey hair (or no hair), buy this book! It’s a great gift for your “over-the-hill” friends, or for their kids, if they are the history buffs of younger generations trying to figure out why we are the way we are. ~~Pacific Book Review